The current movie business has been a sobering wake-up call for a number of directors who were living high on the hog in Hollywood for most of the 1980s and 1990s, and one of them is certainly Oliver Stone.
At one time Stone taking on the likes of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden would have had the major studios going into a frenzied bidding war. But the times of studios making movies like Stone classics “Platoon,” “JFK,” and even “Natural Born Killers” is long gone.
If it doesn’t have a superhero or franchise possibilities they won’t touch it, and Stone isn’t into doing either of those.
So with “Snowden” Stone hooked up with independent distributor Open Road Films, the same company that released last year’s best picture Oscar winner, “Spotlight,” but doesn’t have the deep pockets of a major studio Stone is used to.
However, the project was able to land big names like Joseph Gordon-Levitt to play Snowden and Shailene Woodley as his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills.
In many ways, Stone looks at the major points in the Snowden whistle-blowing with a steady hand, blending in nicely the false promises during the Obama campaign for president of not being like the previous administration when it comes to NSA privacy tactics and the chemistry between Gordon-Levitt and Mills is very believable (I even got used to Gordon-Levitt’s impersonation of Snowden’s voice).
But then the movie suddenly tries to be a thriller and that’s when everything falls off the rails.
The last third of the film follows Snowden while he’s in Hawaii and a series of events leads him to grabbing classified files which he’ll then hand to journalist Glenn Greenwald (played by Zachary Quinto) and filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) to release to the public.
The building of tension in these scenes and the race for Snowden to take the files from his office before anyone can notice is so forced it’s comical.
Had Stone put these events in the continued dramatic tone of the rest of the movie, it would have had a better payoff in the end.
It’s a tactic that movies often use to get people to the theatre (I get it, hacking and displaying the world of computer geeks is a boring topic), embellish the “based on a true story” angle to fit in some things that will build the theatrics of the story.
In fact, one of the books the movie is based on is a fictionalized account of Snowden’s story written by his Russian lawyer titled “Time of the Octopus.” (The other book, “The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man,” is authored by someone who has never met Snowden).
But trying to make the Snowden story a thriller wasn’t convincing at all.
Want a better (and more truthful) story about Snowden, go stream Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary on the events that transpired after Snowden took the documents, “Citizenfour.“
“Snowden” is currently screening at the Toronto International Film Festival and will be in theatres September 16.